Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Celebrating Dr. Clarence Muse

For Black History Month this year I'd like to talk a bit about the great Clarence Muse. You can read on Wikipedia about his life and work in theater and TV and in films such as BROKEN EARTH and WAY DOWN SOUTH.

However, I don't know Muse from those films. At the risk of stepping into deep waters, I'd like to talk more about the films I know Muse from, which tend to be hoary old UHF monster movies, in several of which he played a butler, coachman, porter and preacher. From a historical standpoint as well as to do justice to the efforts of these early actors, I think it's important to make the effort to peer past the broad caricatures these sorts of roles sometimes are pigeonholed as, and see the finer shadings. To dismiss all butler roles as racist is to fall victim to an easy sort of reverse prejudice. The fact is, Clarence Muse brought a lot to each of these potentially demeaning roles. Even in such hoary stuff as Monogram's THE INVISIBLE GHOST (1940) or the Halpern Brothers' WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Muse lent his stock parts such dignity and quiet strength that the entire film benefits. Muse doesn't kill the "fun" or "make a statement" - he simply does his work with a level of grace and intellect that anchors the sketchy hamming around him. No matter how bad the rest of the film is, when Muse is onscreen, you believe .

So this February, as we rightly celebrate African American artists of the past and present, let's not forget thespians like Dr. Clarence Muse, pioneers who slowly, quietly, steadily chipped away at Hollywood's racist stereotype machinery from within, weakening the structure so it might one day topple in a glorious explosion of Poitier and Cosby-style intellectual energy.

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